So what’s yours? Pocket billiards? Nail-biting like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or the odd sly pick of the nose? But perhaps you prefer to keep these matters private. Perhaps you’d slap an ASBO on anyone you saw indulge in your pet vice. Even if, from time to time, in a traffic jam, you indulge in public too.
Hypocrisy is the usual stance towards bad habits, and denial what differentiates the bad from the benign. I’m talking about those traits that advance our cause not a jot, yet which we cling to, either as tokens of our personality (‘I smoke; I break rules; ergo, I’m interesting’ was once my mantra) or because they scratch an itch nothing else can reach (e.g. annoying your wife). In other words, it’s not just filthy nitpicking, or inconvenient foibles, like an addiction to artisan choc, that fall into the category of bad habits, but also more general character failings, such as always being late or never doing your share of chores.
But let’s suppose it’s possible – if only in private – to accept a habit is bad. How might you get rid of it? First, you’d need to accept that the less thought you gave it, the more it mattered to you. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point, character is less a fixed set of traits than a bundle of ‘tendencies’ dependent ‘on circumstance’. Hence if most people ‘seem to have a consistent character’, it’s only because ‘most of us are really good at controlling our environment’. So habits are customs, described by Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon as ‘the principal magistrate of man’s life’. A form of personal habitat, they help to keep life predictable, keeping at bay the chaos outside ourselves. As a result, habits that reassure us can become problematic when they invade others’ territory (e.g. annoy a wife).
You might find it easier mend your ways if you accepted your guilty pleasure is fun only for one, and a poor spectator sport. Particularly if the boyfriend who hates you scratching then begins – to your mutual irritation – scratching himself. (Did I mention that habits are contagious, since primates mirror each other’s behaviour?) But to quit a vice outright creates a dangerous vacancy. Which is why I commend the Renaissance monk Erasmus’s solution: ‘A nail is driven out by another nail. Habit is overcome by habit.’ So stop nibbling, Gordon, and start painting those nails instead. Soon you may have time enough on your hands.